In front of a packed house in Dublin last night, Maria Steen of The Iona Institute discussed the recent abortion referendum, how it was covered by the Irish media, the legislation that will replace the Eighth Amendment, and the way forward for the pro-life movement in Ireland. An edited version of Maria’s talk follows. The full version can be watched on YouTube here .
I am going to reflect on the referendum, how it was won and its significance. Next, I want to preview some of the legal and political battles ahead, particularly those in relation to conscience rights and finally I will ask the question where to from now on?
Part 1: Reflect on the recent referendum and its significance
How was the referendum won? It was won through an appeal to emotion over reason, to prejudice over weighing the evidence. It was won by “othering” those who are pro-life; by blackening their name and portraying them as heartless, unbending moralists, who were content to see women die.
Let’s look for a moment at the appeal to emotion over reason.
Dealing with the issue of abortion predominantly by reference to individual stories, inevitably feeds into a narrative of “choice”. It does this because it excludes from consideration – or even discussion – that there might be an objective moral standard that killing unborn children is wrong; a standard which exists whether or not people choose to follow it.
So many of these stories involved people saying in effect “abortion was the right choice for me”. Against this narrative, what RTE presented as the counter point – that is to say, a story from someone who chose not to have an abortion – merely supports the implicit idea that everyone should be free to choose what is right for them. That, of course, is the essence of the pro-choice argument. Hence the coverage – even if superficially fair – could not help but favour that side.
Framing the debate in this way was doubly unfair, as not only did it exclude the moral issue – and its legal implications – from consideration, but also it did not truly hear from the other side. There is a personal story that was not heard, and could never be heard – that of the baby.
Part 2: Preview legal and political battles – conscience rights
Let’s preview some of the legal and political battles ahead.
Many of you will already be aware of what it is that the Government is proposing: that a doctor, nurse or midwife will be able to opt out of directly participating in or carrying out an abortion but not other hospital workers who may have an objection to facilitating an abortion – porters, secretaries etc.
Furthermore, as regards doctors who attempt to exercise their freedom to choose to have no part in abortion, they will be forced, in effect, to facilitate it by referring a woman to a doctor who will carry the abortion out. This is an affront to the notion of freedom of conscience and is utterly oppressive.
As I have said before, real oppression subsists not merely in doing unjust things, but in requiring others to participate in doing unjust things. This oppression culminates in forcing people to do things they find morally repugnant against their will. The legislation gives the illusion of respecting conscience, while doing nothing of the sort. It forces everyone to play a part in the system of abortion, thus making it more difficult to apportion blame – when everyone is involved no one is blameless, and therefore no one will complain or try to put a brake on it.
It is also obvious to anyone with eyes that the point of all this is not ease of access – which could be catered for by abortion clinics or an internet list of doctors willing to carry out these “services” – but rather the point is to dissuade anyone who might have a conscientious objection from raising it. The point is to target pro-life doctors, exposing them to opprobrium and financial disaster.
Eventually nobody will object and…the only people left in medicine will be those willing to take an innocent life.
Obliteration of the rights – and status – of unborn children
We pointed out during the referendum campaign that once constitutional protection was removed for children before they are born, their rights – if any – would be subject to the whims of the Oireachtas. We predicted that the status of unborn children would change; they would come to be seen as sub-human or non-persons, whose rights are contingent on the wishes of their mothers – or indeed the opinion of a doctor. We see that already coming true. Since May, Simon Harris has published an updated draft of the Heads of Bill he published in advance of the referendum.
In its definition of viability has been changed to:
“the point in a pregnancy at which, in the reasonable opinion of a medical practitioner, the foetus is capable of survival outside the uterus without extraordinary life- sustaining measures”.
What is viability when left to the reasonable opinion of a medical practitioner? What are extraordinary life-sustaining measures? To me, extraordinary life saving measures are what doctors engage in every day in hospitals all over this country.
We can predict where this will go – if left to the opinion of a doctor who is a pro- choice ideologue, it will mean whatever it pleases him to mean – probably up to 30 weeks, maybe more in the case of some children. My own baby was born at 35 weeks and was mechanically ventilated for over a week – undoubtedly an extraordinary life-sustaining measure.
With regard to Heads 5 and 6 of the Bill, there is – again as we pointed out – no gestational limit. This was hotly contested by certain activists on the other side of the debate – and indeed by certain broadcasters, who implied we were lying, and yet there it is in black and white on the Department’s website. Even the Irish Times has acknowledged this in an article in July of this year.
Head 6 deals with what was dishonestly called fatal foetal abnormality during the campaign. Why do I say dishonestly? Because it is not what the government are proposing. There is no requirement that the child actually be terminally ill or have a fatal condition – even if it were possible for a doctor to predict that at all.
All that is required is that there is a likelihood that the child would die. This was never properly debated in the campaign and it seems that Harris is dead set on avoiding any debate on it again. Nevertheless, he has changed the wording from
“condition affecting the foetus that is likely to lead to the death of the foetus either before birth or shortly after birth”
“a condition affecting the foetus that is likely to lead to the death of the foetus either before, or within 28 days of, birth”.
And again, as we predicted, that is just for starters, and before the actual wording of the legislation has been tabled.
The tragedy is that there have been certain organisations who purport to represent people with disabilities who are calling for the same – the right to abort disabled babies. You couldn’t make it up. Meanwhile, let me say that there are many parents of children with disabilities and people with disabilities who are disgusted at these organisations for taking the stance they have and playing into the hands of those who are seeking to brand them as unfit to be born, because of the burden they place on their parents.
In fact, a senior consultant obstetrician in the course of the referendum campaign said that scanning was not necessary to date a pregnancy; that she and her colleagues were trained to be able to date pregnancy on clinical examination. This is simply impossible in the first trimester and after the first trimester there is a margin of error of a couple of weeks. Now Peter Boylan says that ultra-sound facilities are essential and that the “consequences of getting it wrong are very serious”.
Now we have seen Dr Peter Boylan’s call for a waiting period of 72 hours – which was relied on heavily by the Government to sell their legislation to the people – should be scrapped as it was “paternalistic”.
Not only is there already a blatant attempt to make access to abortion easier and more widespread, but Minister Harris yesterday promised that it will be free – before it has even reached the Oireachtas for debate. Free abortion in a country in which, if you have a sick child or are suffering from cancer, you have to pay through the nose for essential treatment. They won’t pay to save your child, but they’ll pay to kill your child – strike that – they’ll get us to pay for the killing.
Part 3: Where to next?
How did this awful thing happen? We voted it in. We voted these politicians into power. And that is what we need to reflect on in the future. If Harris’s proposals bother you – and they should – then Fine Gael must be punished in the next election. You may say, “Well, there’s no difference any more between the various political parties”. That is true, but we must start somewhere, and Fine Gael needs to feel it. If you don’t want to see a regime more permissive than that in the UK in operation here, then you must make them feel your displeasure.
It is high time the media were made to feel it too. If you feel not only politically disenfranchised but also culturally disillusioned, then stop buying pro-choice papers, stop subscribing to hostile outlets that hate you. Turn off the radio shows and TV shows that are pro-choice. If enough of us do this, they will have to take note eventually, if only out of self- interest.
And then…. start trying to save lives.
Not just the lives of babies who might otherwise be lost to abortion, but the lives of their parents, siblings, families, and the communities that might just benefit from the talents they have to share. Start earnestly teaching your own children about the value and dignity of every human life so that when their turn comes they will know how to vote, how to act and how to support and love others.
Support others who also believe in the intrinsic worth of every human being – even human beings we don’t like, even those who hate us and would attack us and our way of life. If you’re a Christian, you will know that we all have a common heritage, we are all children of God… even Government ministers. If you’re not, you will nonetheless recognise the importance of treating everyone as deserving the protection of the law against attack, the value of every human life. Without that recognition, we know what will happen. Life becomes cheapened. “Unwanted babies” become disposable before they are born. “Wanted babies” enjoy the protection of the law only in so far as they are the property of their parents. Born babies and human beings at the other end of life will be next. There are many already advocating for euthanasia, both for the very old and the very young – children who missed the abortionist’s implements by chance because their conditions were not diagnosed before birth. How long before they too will have no escape after birth, if they also are seen merely as an unwanted burden?
This is what awaits us. It is depressing. It is tempting to feel terrible – and justified – anger, but as someone reminded me recently the “anger of man worketh not the justice of God” (James 1:20).
Do what you can in your own life, in your own area. Start small. Small efforts are not to be dismissed or scorned, even if you feel overwhelmed by the culture around you.
During the campaign I gave a talk at a gathering. At the end, some people came up to talk to me. One lady came over and thanked me and then paused and said: “Unfortunately, unfortunately… I had an abortion years ago. I thought it was the right thing. But it wasn’t.” She prayed and prayed to be able to cry. Eventually her prayers were answered and she couldn’t stop crying. Through this process and with the help of a priest who had nearly been aborted himself, she found healing. After telling me her story, she said, “You know it only struck me recently, I didn’t just take the life of my baby, I took the lives of generations to come.”
So save one life if you can, and if you save one life, then you will have saved the whole world.
(September 20, 2018)